A core aspect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 transformation agenda is reforming the kingdom’s legal and judicial framework. One of the key changes has been the codification of laws, which aims to create a more predictable legal and judicial environment and reassure foreign investors and businesses. The legal changes adopted in recent years demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s interest in providing a legal environment conducive to business while at the same time upholding the centrality of sharia in the kingdom’s judicial and legal systems.
Unlike other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Saudi Arabia until recently relied on uncodified Islamic law. This gave judges the freedom to judge court cases according to their knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence and their absolute moral conviction. This ijtihad (independent interpretation of religious texts) often led to different and unforeseeable rulings on similar cases, creating discrepancies and making it difficult for lawyers to rely on judicial precedent.
Codification has been on the agenda since the rule of King bin Abdulaziz, who in 2007 allocated nearly $2 billion to “overhaul” the kingdom’s judicial system and “upgrade its court facilities.” Still, codification was long opposed by the religious class, who considered the process an attempt to Westernize the legal system and undercut its power. In the past, the discretion granted to judges due to the lack of codification often led to subjective rulings, causing debate over controversial cases to go viral, especially with cases involving domestic and family issues. In the absence of codification, the government often introduced specific regulations in the aftermath of controversial cases to deter future violations. Examples include the Protection from Abuse Law, introduced in 2013, and the Anti-Harassment Law, introduced in 2018.
Vision 2030 Spurs Reforms
The need for codification and reforming the Saudi legal system has become even more pressing since the launch of Vision 2030 in 2016. The kingdom’s aim of attracting foreigners and investors, who might be skeptical of its judiciary, demanded a more comprehensive legal system similar to neighboring Gulf countries. The 2018 Bankruptcy Law, one of the first laws introduced in Saudi Arabia with investors in mind, is intended to improve the ease of doing business in the kingdom. This was followed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s announcement in 2021 of a legal reform agenda that included codification and four new laws: the Personal Status Law, the Civil Transactions Law, the Penal Code for Discretionary Sanctions, and the Law of Evidence. The crown prince emphasized that the new laws are derived from sharia while also taking into account international obligations, legal trends, and judicial practices.
The highly anticipated Personal Status Law was issued March 8, 2022, coinciding with International Women’s Day. The law details issues related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, and alimony, such as rights granted to women during marriage and after divorce, which have been fiercely debated in the past. Most of the new provisions are favorable to women, especially in custody cases. However, the law is often not favorable to couples, as it codified certain tribal practices, such as the principle of takafu al-nasab (lineal compatibility in marriage), allowing a married couple or often their immediate family members to annul a marriage in court based on tribal incompatibility.
The Law of Evidence, which came into effect in July 2022, covers civil and commercial transactions. This law builds on previous efforts, including King Abdullah’s 2007 legal reform announcement, and could be a game changer for litigation in the kingdom. It allows the use of digital evidence, such as emails and media, as evidence in court. Moreover, the law states that any monetary disputes over approximately $26,600 cannot rely solely on witnesses and requires written contracts as evidence, encouraging the use of formal contracts and other documentary evidence expected to disincentivize criminal behavior.
The Civil Transaction Law, which was announced in June and will be implemented in December, concerns contracts and financial transactions. With over 700 articles, the comprehensive legislation is meant to reassure investors and provide the transparency and legal foundation required for implementing Vision 2030. This is a significant step in creating a more predictable business climate in the kingdom. The final law in the package Mohammed bin Salman announced in 2021, the Penal Code for Discretionary Sanctions, has yet to be issued but will deal with criminal charges.
The codification process has been subject to thorough planning and execution. Senior officials, ministers, and judges, as well as academics, lawyers, and other practitioners, were appointed to the committees reviewing and drafting each law. In addition, the process consulted a wide array of non-Saudi stakeholders. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s legal system has been codified, but sharia remains the backbone and foundation of the laws. This process of codification has been an important step in getting the kingdom closer to a civil legal system similar to that of its neighbors.
Codification has also been accompanied by other important steps led by the Ministry of Justice, which has become one of the leading Saudi ministries in the field of digitalization. The Najiz app, launched in 2021, includes 140 services for Saudis and noncitizen residents (including business owners). The app is meant to unify and digitize all judicial procedures and transactions under one umbrella, allowing users to file cases, submit evidence, and file for divorce, among other services. The extensive use of apps by the Ministry of Justice has made cases proceed more quickly, as appointments and hearings are now also held online. Notwithstanding the disadvantages of removing the traditional rituals of in-person court sessions, this change appears to be well received among lawyers.
The overhaul of the legal system has also addressed the increase of divorce in the kingdom. Reconciliation offices in courts were introduced as early as 2013 and have been expanded through the establishment of an independent Markaz Al-Mosalaha (Reconciliation Center), accompanied by an online portal and app, to settle family, spousal, and business disputes. Any couple with children going through a divorce must have a session with the Reconciliation Center before the divorce can proceed. Mediation has a history in sharia and Islamic culture, and the aim of the center is to maintain stability within families while also reducing the number of cases that appear before judges, especially coming from newlyweds.
Reforming the legal system will require continuous training of judges and lawyers to keep them up to date with the fast pace of the ongoing changes in Saudi Arabia. So far, the Ministry of Justice’s newly established Judicial Training Center has trained more than 27,000 people to work in the sector. However, as Mohammed bin Salman noted in a September interview, there remains work to be done on judicial reform. When asked about a case in which a Saudi man was sentenced to death for social media posts, the crown prince expressed dismay at the judge’s ruling and agreed that the judicial system still needs further reforms.
The major transformation of Saudi Arabia’s legal and judicial systems in recent years demonstrates the kingdom’s interest in establishing a legal environment more conducive to international business while also improving life for citizens and residents. However, while digitalization efforts have accelerated legal procedures, the fast pace of change often leaves the public, especially women, insufficiently informed. Finally, the readiness of judges to follow the many new regulations and reforms will be a major litmus test for Saudi Arabia’s legal and judicial overhaul.
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